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Hush Little Baby

Most people find singing in public mildly embarrassing but put a baby into their arms and suddenly it is the most natural thing in the world. A recent episode in the ABC series ‘All in the Mind’ explored this almost universal phenomenon with Dr. Alix Woolard a researcher at Embrace at Telethon Kids and the University of Western Australia.

What Does Singing to Babies Achieve?

Singing to babies has three functions. The first is that it attracts attention and studies have demonstrated that babies prefer this type of communication. Research done at Harvard’s Music Laboratory with American infants demonstrated decreased heart rates, dilated pupils, and reduced electrodermal activity to lullabies in different languages and with unfamiliar tunes. Babies reacted to the same parts of the songs and relaxed in response. One hypothesis is that this type of communication is clearly differentiated from the background noise of adult conversation and hence attracts attention.

A second function relates to language and social development. Songs involve words, sentences and turn taking, with the adult often pausing at key moments to elicit a response from the baby and then reacting to this.

A third function involves emotion regulation with a feedback loop evolving between the adult and baby with each responding to the other’s cues. Whether the baby is distressed and crying or laughing and excited the caregiver responds to the behaviour in a way that helps the infant regulate their emotion.

Is it Predictable?

Singing to babies follows a predictable path. In the first six weeks pitch is moderated as we are attempting to soothe rather than play. However, as the baby gets older songs change in content, pitch, and tone and from 3 to 9 months pitch goes up and down and vowels are hyperarticulated and stretched. This coincides with the baby becoming much more alert and interested in their world physically more active, rolling, picking up objects and playing with toys. As language begins to develop songs become less about pitch and more about content with repetition of words.

Is there a Gender Difference?

While both men and women react to young babies in very similar ways, difference appears as  they become older with men becoming more directive and action oriented compared to women. This involves teaching the baby what is happening or what they are doing.

In Conclusion

So, the next time you are handed a baby to hold don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing songs you had no awareness you knew much to the delight of both and remember that something much bigger is driving another magical developmental process.

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